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Saturday, Aug 02, 2014
Editorials

Red-light cameras proving their worth

Published:

The evidence in Tampa is pretty persuasive. The number of accidents at intersections with red light cameras is down nearly 30 percent, the number of citations for running red lights at those intersections is decreasing, and police say motorists are changing their driving habits for the better.

The city has every reason to continue, or perhaps even expand, its use of the technology.

Yet, once again lawmakers in Tallahassee are taking aim at the cameras.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican from St. Petersburg, has filed a bill that calls for a total repeal of red light cameras across the entire state.

He calls them intrusive, and says local governments are using them as “backdoor tax increases.”

We think his bill is misguided for a couple of reasons. First, as the results in Tampa show, the red light cameras make the roads safer. Secondly, the decision about whether to use cameras should rest with local governments, not with busybody lawmakers in Tallahassee.

The Legislature acted wisely in 2010 when it passed a law granting the authority over red-light cameras to local governments. More than 100 local jurisdictions have installed the cameras, but controversy has followed every step of the way.

Civil libertarians raise concerns about the government monitoring our behavior. Critics such as Brandes say local governments that collect a portion of the fines levied against violators are motivated by greed more than safety. And conflicting safety studies leave their effectiveness open to question.

But the experience in Tampa, and the results of a statewide survey, should put those arguments to rest.

A Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles survey of 73 local jurisdictions found that the red-light cameras were making the intersections safer.

“With regard to crash data, the most common outcome was a decrease in rear-end and side-impact crashes,” a report on the survey said. “In fact, a majority of agencies reported decreases in the total number of crashes at red-light intersections. Lastly, agencies reported that in addition to the decrease in total crashes, traffic safety improved throughout the jurisdiction as drivers were more cautious when approaching all intersections.”

The T-bone crashes that result when a motorist runs a red light are particularly deadly, so there should be little question the cameras are saving lives.

Granted, the survey was completed by local governments that have a vested interest in the technology and that receive a portion of the fines. But a single indisputable fact in the report makes it obvious why the cameras are needed.

In the course of one year, the 73 jurisdictions that participated in the survey issued 999,929 red light violation notices. That’s nearly a million drivers blowing through red lights at the 400 intersections being monitored in those jurisdictions.

No wonder the cities and counties are reaping a windfall. It seems a rather significant number of motorists can’t bear to stop at an intersection for a minute or two, and in the process put innocent lives at risk.

Their risky behavior resulted in millions of dollars in fines. Across the state, annual revenue from red-light camera violations exceeds $100 million. In Tampa last year, the city netted $2.3 million from the cameras.

Should local governments be punished for that risky behavior? Hardly. In fact, the number of violations is dropping now that motorists are aware of the cameras, a trend that undercuts the greed argument behind the effort to remove the cameras.

The cameras are not without flaws. As with any technology, there were bugs to work out. Lawmakers last year, led by a bill Brandes championed, made tweaks in the law that made the appellate process fairer and eased the rules for motorists turning right on red.

That’s the direction the red light camera debate should be moving. State lawmakers should be looking for ways to improve the system across the state, not dictate local safety policies from Tallahassee.

They were right to give local jurisdictions the authority to use the cameras. It would be wrong to repeal that authority now that the evidence shows the cameras are saving lives.

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